And Then There Were Nuns

SISTER MARY SHERIFF RIDES AGAIN

By TOM SOTER

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She was insistent on the point. “I was talking with someone at a party last night and she told me that there is no such thing as an Episcopalian nun,” my friend said in her forceful, know-it-all manner. “You must have been mistaken. They must have been Catholic.”

I was equally insistent. “Look,” I said to her. “I don’t care what your party pal said. I went to that school for 14 years. I think I’d know if they were Episcopalian or not."

Of course, I was right (I showed my friend the Episcopalian nuns' website), but something else in our exchange rocked me.

Fourteen years!

Was it that long? That was a significant portion of my life. Some times it seems like only yesterday, other times it feels like – as my mother used to say – “ten thousand years ago.” The teachers, both nuns and laypeople are a who’s who of forgotten figures who once loomed large in my life: The Reverend Mother Ruth, Sister Hedwig, Sister Mary Sharon, Sister Marguerite, Mr. Baker, Mr. Ptucha, Mr. Riordan, Father Jones, Miss Turnipseed. Ah, memories. The way we were.

Where do I start? There was Sister Mary Sharon. She was a kindergarten or nursery school teacher of mine, about whom all I can remember is that I called her “Sister Mary Sheriff,” probably because of my love of cowboys. Then there was the nun who was an ex-model, and the quiet novice (a nun in training) with whom a friend of mine liked to play mind games (every day at lunch, when she would serve him his meal, he would give her little notes that would say things like, “You must be hammer or anvil. I will break you”; she finally sternly told him to stop giving her notes – I don’t think he obeyed).

I have more memories of Sister Hedwig: she had been a lay teacher named Hedwig Zorb (her picture was in an old yearbook, one of the few times we had actually seen a nun – or in this case, a nun-to-be – in lay clothes). She was a small compact, German woman, who spoke with a thick accent and would say things like, “Zero for the day” if we misbehaved or, in some cases, make us sit on our hands if we got out of line (I used to do a killer impersonation of her, employing her pet phrases – “Sit on your hands!” – in comic monologues that would delight of my family and friends; I also used my impression in an audio show made with my friends called Planet of the Nuns).

The nuns taught all sorts of classes: Sister Marguerite (a former student at the high school who had joined the order months after she graduated) was our laid back, amusing chemistry teacher; Sister Lavinia was the jolly, heavyset nurse; Sister Mary Elizabeth was the Walter Matthau-like geography teacher. They all taught with no salary, lived in a convent one block away, and all were enigmas to me. As my mother put it, “Who, in this day and age, becomes a nun?”

The lay teachers, who supplemented the nuns, were equally odd. Mr. Ptucha, a gym teacher who came to class in double-breasted sports jackets and neckties, used to encourage us to faster speeds by throwing a volley ball at us as we crawled across the gym floor on our elbows. Mr. Baker, another gym teacher, used to bark out orders like the ex-marine he said he was.

Certainly he talked tough. When we would go down to the park for gym class on hot spring or fall days, we would often run around kicking up dust clouds. “Stop that!” Mr. Baker would cry out harshly. And then he would tell us the story he never tired of telling: about how we could develop pink eye from all that dust. And how the only treatment was to “put you in a dark room for a day” until someone came to treat you. And the treatment was pretty horrible: a suction cup would be placed over your eye and they’d suction out the dust and, he  always said at the finish, they could "hear you screaming a mile away."


[[wysiwyg_imageupload:62:]]High schoolmates Noelle Ghnassia and Paul Lourd, 1974 (right) and (below) Tom Soter with Noelle Ghnassia, 2010.

Miss Turnipseed certainly had the oddest name of all the teachers. I remember her only vaguely, as the woman with the cornpone southern accent and the Jackie Kennedy bouffant hairdo, who was my fifth-grade homeroom teacher, and also my math teacher. She was one of the many lay teachers (i.e. non-nun) who[[wysiwyg_imageupload:198:]] taught at the school and my father always had trouble remembering her name (he called her Miss Peppercorn). But he eventually had reason to recall her: near the end of fifth grade, she told my dad that I was doing so poorly in math class that there was little hope that I could remedy it by semester’s end. Failing math would mean I’d have to redo fifth grade – something we hoped to avoid. All was not lost, however. If I were to take summer remedial math courses, she was sure I could be promoted into the sixth grade.

And naturally, Miss Turnipseed, out of the goodness of her heart, offered to tutor me – for $30 a session (a lot of money in 1967 dollars). For a month, I went to morning sessions at her tiny apartment (located somewhere in Manhattan’s West 50s), and, I have to say, Miss Turnipseed certainly didn’t knock herself out. As I worked on assignments that she tore out of a math workbook, she sat in the other room drinking coffee and watching game shows or soap operas. She would come in every so often to refresh her coffee and ask me, “How’re y’all doin’?” It was sheer torture.

It was therefore with some delight that I came to my penultimate “class.” At its end, Miss Turnipseed talked about what we would be covering in the next month until I foolishly interrupted her.

[[wysiwyg_imageupload:64:]]Classmate Lisa Volpe in 1974, and at a reunion with Paul Lourd in 2010[[wysiwyg_imageupload:65:]].

“Miss Turnipseed,” I said. “My father told you when we started that we could only do this for six weeks because we were going to Greece in July.”

Her eyes narrowed. “Oh, yes,” she said. “I do recall. Well, in that case, we will have a double-length session next week, and tell your father, it’ll be $50 for that.” 

My father was none too pleased at this increase in my ransom, but like any good blackmail victim, he paid up rather than go to the cops. He didn’t get his money’s worth, either. I came to that special, extra-long session dreading it but left a happy child.

“Thomas, do y’all have the check?” Miss Turnipseed said as I arrived. I handed it to her. A big smile broke out on her face. The “special” class was certainly special. It didn’t exist.  “Y’all can go home now,” she said as she pocketed the money. I was delighted, but my father was not thrilled. "Can you spell shakedown?" he must have been thinking. But as he always did when facing the absurdities of life, he smiled and carried on. And, after all, I did make it into the sixth grade.

That was over 40 years ago. Other memories rush by: of friendships made that last to this day, of girlfriends and Christmas pageants, of chapels and track meets, of hopes and dreams, and of one of the happiest, safest times of my life, when the best was still ahead of me. And even though my skeptical friend thinks that Episcopalian nuns do not exist, I can state that they – and their equally memorable lay colleagues – certainly, most definitely did. Once upon a time, and to this day, in life and in my memories. And if you still don’t believe it, “Zero for the day!”

July 16, 2010